In Australia child protection is a state and territory government responsibility, and child safety and wellbeing issues are increasingly being recognised by governments as a core policy area. Consequently all jurisdictions have increased their focus in the area of child protection and on providing support and services to families, including early intervention where necessary.

This 2007-08 report is based on the following four national child protection data collections:

  • child protection notifications, investigations and substantiations
  • children on care and protection order
  • children in out-of-home care
  • intensive family support services.

Who reports child abuse and neglect?

Incidents or suspected cases of child abuse and neglect are usually reported to government departments in the first instance by health or welfare professionals, teachers or the police, who in some jurisdictions are mandated to report such matters, or by other people in the community. In some jurisdictions, anyone who suspects that child abuse or neglect is occurring must, by law, report it to the appropriate authority.

Key stages in the child protection process

Although there are differences between states and territories that affect the comparability of child protection data, the main stages of the process are broadly similar across jurisdictions. Reports of suspected abuse or neglect can lead to the matter being dealt with as a family support issue (whereupon services or information will be provided) or as a child protection notification. Departments then determine if a notification requires an investigation or is better dealt with by other means such as referral to other organisations or family support services. (In Queensland, however, all notifications must be investigated). If an investigation is carried out, the notification will be categorised as being either substantiated, not substantiated or no outcome possible. This means that the investigating authority has determined whether or not, the child has been, is being, or is likely to be, abused, neglected or otherwise harmed. Substantiations can (but do not always) lead to a child being placed on a care and protection order and/or in out-of-home care. In some jurisdictions, children can also be placed on a care and protection order or in out-of-home care for other reasons.

Main findings

Over the last few years, what is regarded as child abuse or neglect has broadened in some jurisdictions which may have led to an increase in notifications, investigations and substantiations. A rise in the number of children requiring protection, a greater community awareness of child abuse and neglect issues and changes in child protection policies and department practices may also be contributing factors.

On the other hand, many jurisdictions have introduced alternative responses (e.g. family support services) for the less serious incidents which assist in containing the rise in the number of notifications, investigations and substantiations.

With the many differences in the way each state or territory handles and reports child protection issues, one must interpret relevant statistical information with caution. But, on balance, the trend is that nationally, substantiations, and the number and rates of children under care and protection orders or in out-of-home care have been on the rise. 2007-08 represents an anomaly, as substantiations fell for the first time in ten years. At this stage it is difficult to tell whether this decrease will continue or not. Although the data are often problematic, the available evidence shows very clearly that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are overrepresented in all of these areas.

Notifications, investigations and substantiations

As noted above, the numbers of notifications of child abuse or neglect, and subsequent investigations and substantiations, are on the rise in Australia.

  • The number of child protection notifications increased by 26% over the last four years, from 252,831 in 2004-05 to 317,526 to in 2007-08. In the past year the number of notifications rose in all jurisdictions except Qld and Tas (Table 2.3).
  • Nationally, the number of substantiated notifications increased by more than 30% from 46,154 in 2004-05 to 60,230 in 2006-07 before a fall to 55,120 in 2007-08 (Table 2.4). The decline in substantiations could be an indication of the success of family support services offered in jurisdictions as an alternative response for less serious incidents. Future years data will be needed to determine if the trend is changing
  • Rates of children aged 0-16 years who were the subject of a substantiation of a notification received in 2007-08 varied considerably across jurisdictions, reflecting differences in policy and practice. Substantiation rates were between 2.9 in WA and 11.9 in NT per 1,000 (Table 2.6).
  • Although the quality of the data on Indigenous identified varies between states and territories, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were clearly over-represented in the child protection system. Indigenous children aged 0-16 years were more than 6 times as likely to be the subject of substantiations than other children (Table 2.8).

Children on care and protection orders

The number of children on care and protection orders continues to rise nationally, although the number of children on care and protection orders in the ACT fell slightly in the 12 months to 30 June 2008.

  • The number of children on care and protection orders rose by more than 100% from 16,449 at 30 June 1998 to 34,279 at 30 June 2008 (Table 3.5).
  • The rates of children on care and protection orders in Australia increased from 3.5 per 1,000 at 30 June 1998 to 6.9 per 1,000 at 30 June 2008 (Table 3.9).
  • At 30 June 2008, the rates of children aged 0-17 years on care and protection orders varied across jurisdictions. Western Australia, South Australia and Victoria were at the low end of the range (6.0, 6.2 and 6.5 per 1,000 children respectively), while the Northern Territory, Tasmania and NSW were at the higher end (8.4, 7.7 and 7.4 per 1,000 children respectively) (Table 3.9).
  • Across Australia, the rates of Indigenous children on care and protection orders were more than 7 times as high as for other children (Table 3.10).

Children in out-of-home care

The number of children in out-of-home care at 30 June has risen each year from 1998 to 2008.

  • The numbers in out-of-home care rose by almost 115% from 14,470 at 30 June 1998 to 31,166 at 30 June 2008 (Table 4.3). This reflects a 'stockpiling effect' as more children are being admitted to care than discharged each year. One explanatory factor for the overall increase is the complex family situations of these children, which impacts on the length of time children remain in care. The numbers rose by just under 10% in the past year to 30 June.
  • The average rise over the period 1998 to 2008 has been just over 8% (Table 4.3).
  • The rate of children in out-of-home care in Australia increased from 3.1 per 1,000 at 30 June 1998 to 6.2 per 1,000 at 30 June 2008 (Table 4.7).
  • The rates of children in out-of-home care ranged from 4.2 per 1,000 in Victoria, to 8.4 per 1,000 in New South Wales (Table 4.7). Across Australia at 30 June 2008, 48% of children in care were in foster care, 45% were in relative or kinship care and only 5% were in residential care (Table 4.4).
  • The rate of Indigenous children in out-of-home care was almost 9 times the rate of other children (Table 4.8).